Chapter 36 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

The inquisitors of state, arrested by order of the Doge and Council, who flung to the lions every victim demanded of them, were conveyed to confinement in San Giorgio Maggiore. The same decree, promulgated in response to the crack of the whip of the French master, opened the prisons of those, amongst others, whose fate until that moment had lain in the hands of the Three.

To many of them it must have been as a sudden transition from darkness into light, leaving them dazzled and uncertain. To none was it more so than to Marc-Antoine.

Descending, with others, the Giant's Staircase in the dusk, given egress by the guards at the Porta della Carta, beyond which he found mounted two pieces of ordnance, he stood in the agitated, curious, vociferating concourse on the Piazzetta, and for a moment did not know whither to turn his steps.

To determine him, orientation was first necessary; he must learn what had been taking place during those weeks of his confinement, shut off from all news of the world. Before his eyes, in the guns at the Porta della Carta and in the double file of soldiers drawn up under arms along the whole length of the Ducal Palace, was the evidence of portents.

After some self-questioning he concluded that the only safe place in which to seek the needed information was the Casa Pizzamano. He was in an unkempt condition, and he had not been shaved for two days. His linen was soiled and his toilet generally deplorable. But that was no matter, although he was grateful for the dusk that mercifully veiled it. He still had some money in his pocket, remaining over from all out of which his gaoler had swindled him for maintenance.

He pushed his way through the more or less turbulent crowd, and, hailing a gondola at the Piazzetta steps, had himself carried off to San Daniele.

It was some hours after Domenico had departed under arrest, and Marc-Antoine came now to a house of mourning. He sensed it from the moment his foot touched the wide marble steps and entered the noble vestibule, where, although night had completely closed in, the porter was only just kindling a flame in the great gilded ship's lantern by which the place was lighted.

The man looked hard at Marc-Antoine before he recognized him; then he summoned an assistant as lugubrious as himself to conduct his excellency.

Above-stairs lackeys moved silent and soft-footed as if in a house of death.

Amid the splendours of the untenanted salon Marc-Antoine waited, uneasily wondering, until, pallid, sombre, and gaunt, the Count stood before him in the candlelight.

'I am glad to see you at last delivered, Marc. It is a condition for which you are to thank the French.' In bitterness he added: 'The rulers of this Venice for which you have laboured would never have treated you as generously. They have a different way with those who serve them. Domenico has gone to reap the reward of his loyal conduct. They have taken him to Murano. He is a prisoner there in the fortress of San Michele.'

'Domenico!' Marc-Antoine was appalled. 'But why?'

'So that presently he may face a firing-party.'

'I mean on what pretext? What has he done?'

'He had the temerity to carry out the orders of the Government he served, and fired on a French warship that sought to force an entrance to the Port of Lido. The French have asked for his head in expiation, and the brave Manin is tossing it to them.'

Marc-Antoine looked into those weary, blood-injected eyes in speechless sympathy both of sorrow and of anger.

The Count invited him to sit, and, moving past him on dragging feet, flung himself, a man limp and jaded, into a chair. Marc-Antoine, disregarding the invitation, merely wheeled to face him.

'The boy's poor mother is almost out of her mind, and Isotta is not much better. I boasted that I was ready without a tremor to surrender everything to this Republic. Do not suppose that I boasted of more than the event proved me able to perform. To save Venice I would have given son and daughter, life and wealth. But this...This is just waste and wanton immolation that was never in my reckoning.' He sank his head to his hand with a little moan of weariness and pain, and he remained so whilst Marc-Antoine, heavy-hearted, looked on. Thus for a long moment. Then, abruptly rousing himself, he looked up again. 'Forgive me, Marc. I have no right to trouble you with all this.'

'My dear Count! Do you think I do not share your sorrow? Do you forget that I, too, loved Domenico?'

'Thank you, my friend. Now that you are delivered, tell me in what I can serve you, if it is still in my power to serve any man. Now that we have reached the end there will be nothing to keep you in Venice. In fact, it may not even be safe for you to linger.'

Mechanically Marc-Antoine answered him: 'It certainly will not if the French are coming. It will profit nobody that I end my days before a firing-party.'

'I heard this morning that there is an English squadron at Pola,' said the Count. 'Admiral Correr is at San Giorgio in Alga, and at a word from me would send you there in his fastest galley.'

'Ah!' Marc-Antoine's glance brightened with inspiration.

He stood chin in hand, for a thoughtful moment. Then at last he found himself a chair and begged the Count to tell him briefly all that had happened in these last weeks. The Count told him, but not briefly, because Marc-Antoine himself thwarted the brevity he had begged. At every stage he interrupted the Count with questions upon detail.

But at the end of a half-hour the tale was told, and Marc-Antoine stood up again now fully instructed.

'I challenge you,' the Count said, as he rose with him, 'to find me in all history a more lamentable page.' And then, anticipating the question Marc-Antoine most desired to ask, he spoke of Isotta. 'Amid this ruin I can at least thank God that my daughter is spared from marriage with a dishonoured scoundrel.'

Marc-Antoine's eyes were suddenly alight. Yet his only comment, far indeed from expressing the sudden uplift in his soul, was: 'So! You have found him out.' He did not press for details. For the moment the miraculous fact itself contented him. His voice vibrated deeply. 'Then it may yet prove that my journey to Venice has not been entirely wasted.' He swept on without giving the Count time to speak, so that his next question seemed (quite falsely) to supply the explanation. 'It may yet be that the salvation of your son shall follow. I may yet take him with me to those British ships at Pola.'

The Count stared in sudden fierceness. 'Take Domenico? Are you mad?'

'Perhaps. But have you not observed that madmen often prevail in this world?' He held out his hand in leave-taking. 'Unless I fail you, you shall have word of me very soon again.'

'Fail? But what have you in mind?'

Marc-Antoine smiled into those tired eyes. 'Suspend your despair until this time tomorrow, sir. If you have not heard from me by then, you may mourn me together with Domenico. That is all now. It is idle to talk of what may never be accomplished. I go to see what I can do.'

Abruptly he departed.

Half-an-hour later Battista, the landlord of the Swords, was gaping at the ill-kempt, unshaven figure that stood before him asking for Philibert.

'Virgin Most Holy!' ejaculated the paunchy little man. 'But it is our Englishman come back from the dead!'

'Not quite so far, Battista. Where is that rascal of mine, and where is my baggage?'

One and the other were produced. Philibert had remained in the employment of the inn. At the sight of his master he almost fell on his knees in the ardour of thanksgiving. Marc-Antoine, in haste, cut short this ecstasy. He carried off Philibert to his old rooms which were standing vacant.

At the end of an hour he came forth again metamorphosed. Shaved, and his hair carefully dressed, he had arrayed himself as nearly in the livery of Jacobinism as his wardrobe permitted: buckskins and Hessian boots, a long brown riding-coat with silver buttons, a white neckcloth very full and plain, and a conical hat on which, as if to contradict the rest, he had pinned the blue-and-yellow cockade of Venice. For weapons he put a pistol in each of the ample pockets of his full-skirted coat and tucked a cudgel under his arm.

A gondola carried him through the night, wafted by the soft balmy air of early May. By dark oily canals on which flickered reflections of illuminated windows he came to the Madonna dell' Orto, and by the narrow alley in which two months ago he had all but lost his life, to the Corte del Cavallo and the French Legation.